My horse Lukas receives over 100 e-mails a day!
"Thank you, Karen and Lukas, for changing people's perception of horses - I own a horse rescue and I have been getting more calls than ever from prospective adopters. Lukas is helping to bring greater understanding and vast improvement into the lives of horses world-wide."
"Lukas makes my autistic son smile, thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"Lukas is like a beacon to the world - showing how truly remarkable and wonderful our equine friends are. I always knew they had intelligence and emotions, now I can prove it to the skeptics I know."
"I just had to tell you how much I love Lukas - since losing my horse 2 years ago, I've been so depressed I haven't wanted to ride. I saw Lukas' videos on YouTube and realized how much I miss being around horses after seeing the bond that you two share. Now, I'm going to 1/2 lease a friend's mare. I'm so excited, thank you, Lukas!"
As glowing as all this sounds, it wasn't always this way. Lukas (race name Just Ask Mike) left the track as a two-year-old with two bowed tendons after three unmemorable race finishes, changed hands several times and ended up emaciated and neglected in a back yard. He was rescued by Sue Smith, who took pity on the then 8-year-old chestnut gelding. "You could see every rib and his tail was a solid bat of dried mud." Smith had hoped to eventually include him in her amateur jumping program, but after two years he still wasn't fitting in, according to Smith, and I purchased him from her.
Working full-time as a psychiatric nurse, I had our barn trainer begin some basic lessons on him with the plan to take over myself and show him at lower level dressage shows. In a very short time Lukas became sullen and resistant to the point of being extremely dangerous - bucking, bolting and spooking (even in his own stall!).
"He's a throwaway, Karen,” I was told by more than a few well-meaning observers. “Quit wasting your time on him." After 30 years of training horses, I had just about met my match with Lukas.
FIRST UN-TRAIN...THEN TRAIN
Before giving up, I decided to fall back on my 30+ years of behavioral training experience and also try to find out what he would enjoy doing. My approach uses a very broad base of shaping (successive approximation) techniques, a specialized version of clicker training and lots of positive reinforcement. So, I set about UN-training by replacing unwanted behaviors with desirable responses. The particular responses I chose to substitute happened to be tricks - fun and play being at the core of my system. I've always used the trick training games as a way to create a connection and build confidence, willingness, focus and trust. I also ascribe to strictly liberty work (free/loose and without any equipment, not even a whip). It must also be said that I employ patience and kindness, affection and appreciation - without which none of this would have been possible.
I am often asked about the role that my career has played in Lukas' training. I have been a psychiatric nurse for 25 years on acute-care units. This experience has been invaluable in my work with the horses; it allowed me to see the wondrous benefits and powerful effects of sensitivity, compassion, gentleness and careful observation. I became aware over the years that cultivating qualities in myself that I wanted to see in others (including horses), made a huge difference in the way they responded. Being aware of and monitoring my voice (tone, rate), body positioning (posture, stance, etc.), gestures, language, and especially emotions, brought about what I had hoped for in and with others all along: harmony, balance, peace and joy.
As I mentioned, the use of liberty training is my preference. It enables me to influence the horse in a way that I feel is most natural and effective. I use it for many reasons, the most important being the development of the relationship with the horse. I cannot emphasize enough the necessity of building a relationship with your equine partner - when you have that, you can then teach anything you want, be it spelling, jumping or passage. I realized that being a good trainer required the ability to cultivate this aspect of my approach, which now forms the basis of my system. Everything I do with Lukas is related to promoting and maintaining our bond, which makes for extremely efficient learning. Liberty training is the vehicle that allows me to guide, re-direct, explain and reward a horse in a manner he best understands. Lukas hasn't been tied since I bought him, and while he wears a halter and lead while we're out, there's rarely a time that I use it (the lead is looped over his neck); there is no need for it. Now, I am not suggesting that everyone try this - it is only what I do to demonstrate my point. My point being that if a horse freely offers a passage "on the bit," backs up, bows, stays, etc. without any equipment whatsoever, surely there is no need for cruel methods to achieve our training goals. Pain compliance, exhaustive techniques and rigid schedules are counter-productive in every instance. They may garner short-term results, but the damage is deep.
“SOMETHING THAT HE WOULD ENJOY DOING”
In my opinion, all creatures enjoy play to some degree, being able to accomplish tasks successfully and having a sense of some control in their lives. The specialized version of clicker training that I use includes all of those aspects - it provides not only immediate signals, but also gives me a way to encourage "inclinations" toward desirable responses. We started with the smile and we're still going strong. To date, Lukas' liberty repertoire includes: posing, nodding yes and shaking his head no, a dry and wet kiss, fetching, being "blindfolded," catching, yawning, saluting, pedestal work, Spanish Walk (forward and backward), the stay and come, jambet (3 legged pivot), reverence, passage, bow, crossing his front legs, lying down while I sit on him, feet together (front and back), hide and seek (with his beloved green towel), acting lame, pushing a cart, and the rear. Most of his acclaim, however, comes from his amazing abilities to spell, count, identify shapes and discriminate colors.
This once-upon-a-time "throwaway" has been on NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, HLN, Equisearch and the Associated Press recently released a feature story on him. He is listed on both Yahoo and Google as "The World's Smartest Horse" and Guinness is considering a record on him. His story - which has really become a love story about a woman and a horse - has been in countless magazines, newsletters, blogs and newspapers world-wide. He is the official Spokeshorse for TROTT (Training Racehorses Off the Track) and a poster-boy for the California Thoroughbred Breeder's Association. He is also associated with Heal with Horses, an equine-assisted therapy group helping trauma victims (all of my proceeds and services are donated to help the horses). He has been invited to attend the Grand Prix HITS Desert Circuit Horse Show, the Equine Affaire, The International Equestrian Festival, The Western States Horse Expo and America's Family Pet Expo. Now, if only I could teach him to answer his own mail!